The Franking Sign Monster

Franking is a venerable term, largely fallen into disuse among modern speakers outside the postal service. It may be better known to readers of Victorian romance novellas, such as those by Barbara McMahon or Christina Dodd.

In them, a genteel husband -– usually a Member of Parliament -– is seen penning a love note to his chère-amie, sealing it up and scrawling his signature across the corner of the envelope. (Contemporary readers are left to their own devices in determining if he is heading out to hike the Appalachian Trail after dropping it off.)

The point of the exercise was to note that the legislator’s missive to his paramour would then be delivered without his having to pay the appropriate postal tax. The franking privilege, as it came to be known, was claimed by the British in the House of Commons, and later adopted by the United States Congress. To prevent theft and abuse of taxpayer funds by limiting the volume and scope of such free mailings, a committee known as the Franking Commission was established in 1991.  Being essentially a group of glorified school hall monitors charged with making sure nobody is stealing stamps, it wasn’t viewed as one of the juicy, exciting posts in the House which were likely to fast-track you to a spot on Meet the Press.

It is therefore unsurprising that this particular panel was infrequently found in the news. That changed, however, on July 23, when some GOP congressmen were blocked from sending out to their constituents a flow chart depicting the complex, Byzantine structure of the Democrats’ proposed health care system. It was apparently deemed to be too partisan, by virtue of making the system appear, well… complex and Byzantine.

This was followed in short order by another instance, when Republican Congressman John Carter of Texas was informed that he could not record the introduction to a conference call because of unacceptable language contained in the message. The offending phrase, in this case, was: “House Democrats unveiled a government run health care plan.” He was informed by the esteemed Franking Commission that he could still communicate with the voters of his district, provided he changed the wording to: “The House majority unveiled a public option health care plan.”

Leaving aside for a moment the disturbing implications, the issue at the center of this dispute is a congressional rule which bars franked mail from being “partisan, politicized, or personalized.” This is, as they say, one of those ideas that sounds great on paper but quickly becomes problematic in practice and delivery. Since these rules were last revised in 1997, the bar for judgments regarding the “partisan” nature of franked communications between House members and their constituents has been set quite low out of necessity. Such a system unfortunately relies on the now extinct beast known as common sense, and bears a strong resemblance to Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 Supreme Court protestations on pornography. “I know it when I see it.”